SANTIAGO, Chile — President Bush assured Mexico yesterday that he would expend “political capital” earned in his re-election to push hard to grant guest-worker status to millions of illegal immigrants.
The president said he had “campaigned on this issue” in the election.
At a joint press conference last night with Chilean President Ricardo Lagos to close a summit of 21 Pacific Rim nations, he suggested that critics in Congress who think his proposal will overwhelm an already taxed Border Patrol are mistaken.
“It makes sense for border security,” Mr. Bush said at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit. “We’d much rather have security guards running down terrorists or drug runners or drug smugglers than people coming to work.”
Mr. Bush has tried since the first month of his presidency in 2001 to push an immigration-reform bill through Congress that would allow illegal immigrants to remain in the United States indefinitely, and others to cross the border from Mexico, if they registered for “temporary worker cards.”
Conservatives have cited security concerns — especially a report that al Qaeda was contemplating plans to smuggle a dirty bomb into the U.S. through the southern border — and have charged that the Bush plan amounts to a blanket amnesty program for people defiantly breaking the law.
Two dozen congressmen wrote a letter to the president opposing the plan, but Mr. Bush yesterday dismissed their objections.
“I get letters all the time from people who are trying to steer me one way or the other when it comes to legislation,” Mr. Bush said. “I’m going to move forward.
“In the letter, I noticed they’re objecting to the program because it’s an amnesty program,” he said. “It’s not an amnesty program. It’s a worker program.”
Mr. Bush said the program would not allow holders of the worker card to get on a fast track to citizenship, but would force them “to get in line with the people who have done so legally.”
The president said he is going to spend the “political capital” he earned in his re-election to push hard for his plan. “I’m going to find supporters on the Hill and move it,” he said.
Mr. Bush met yesterday morning with Mexican President Vicente Fox, and said they “spent a great deal of time talking about the immigration issue.”
“I told President Fox that I campaigned on this issue,” Mr. Bush said. “I made it very clear my position that we need to make sure that where there’s a willing worker and a willing employer, that that job ought to be filled legally in cases where Americans will not fill that job.”
The president said he is working with Mr. Fox to beef up security on both sides of the border.
“I explained to the president that we share a mutual concern to make sure our border is secure,” Mr. Bush said. “One way to make sure the border is secure is to have reasonable immigration policies.”
A senior Bush administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said both presidents realize that “immigration remains a sensitive political issue” that “has to be managed with intelligence by both sides.”
The two men also discussed a proposition that passed in Arizona on Nov. 2 requiring government workers to report to federal authorities any violations of immigration law by anyone applying for public benefits.
They agreed that “this is the political environment that we find ourselves in,” the official said.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell visited Mexico earlier this month and assured Mr. Fox that pushing the immigration plan through Congress was “a high priority,” the official said.
“President Fox, in his discussions with President Bush, was exploring ways in which the United States and Mexico, and the United States, Mexico and Canada, can work within NAFTA to improve North American competitiveness and actually extend Mexico’s economic growth kind of deeper into Mexico and into those areas where many migrants are leaving to move to the United States,” the official said.
The Bush administration sees the program limited to those jobs that American workers won’t fill, mostly low-paying service-industry jobs and farming labor largely carried out by Mexicans who enter the U.S. illegally.
“It’s all about creating an environment in which people who are contributing economically to the United States can regularize their status,” the official said. “It’s always with the intention of returning to their home countries.”
Critics say that scenario is unrealistic, because it is common now for illegal immigrants to sneak into the country and give birth, thus making their children U.S. citizens — who have a right under current law to stay united with their parents. In France and Germany, critics argue, experience with similar programs has shown that guest workers tend to remain in host countries permanently.
The senior administration official said the law would be written in such a way to prevent that, but he could not say specifically how long Mr. Bush would like to allow these guest workers to stay.
“Well, like so much, the details have to be worked out in the larger discussions with the Congress,” he said. “But the principle, as laid out by the president, was fairly clearly established that you set time frames for which people are allowed to work within the United States, and then you determine legislatively whether those times frames can be rolled.
“But the idea is that you do not use a temporary-worker program as an avenue towards residency or to citizenship,” he said. “It’s really just a temporary-workers program.”
Mr. Bush leaves the APEC summit with little new support for his anti-terror foreign-policy goals, and no new significant commitments were made by the member states to increase their involvement in Iraq.
The president flies to Colombia this morning for a meeting with President Alvaro Uribe, one of the few conservative leaders in Latin America. Mr. Bush will discuss strengthening the coordination between the U.S. and Colombia in fighting the nexus of drug trafficking and terrorism.
Mr. Bush, the former owner of the Texas Rangers and a huge baseball fan, will also meet with Colombian major leaguers and youth players during his three hours in the country, the shortest official presidential foreign visit on record, aides said.